Hanoi Grudgingly Opens Market To the Pursuit of Happiness

The French are again lounging at the Metropole, remembering the old days - a letter from Hanoi

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

VLADIMIR ILYICH LENIN still commands enough official respect in Vietnam that his picture is placed on the front pages of newspapers whenever his birthday rolls around.

And in downtown Hanoi, a statue of Lenin commands a central spot in a city whose common citizens have embraced free markets day by day ever since 1986, when Communist leaders of Vietnam grudgingly began to undo the command economy.

The pace toward free markets quickened in 1991 when Moscow cut off aid to Vietnam. Now, workers who ride bicycles to factories and peasants who bring bullock carts to the city must compete on Hanoi's streets with Toyota cars, buses full of foreign tourists, and the vehicles of international courier services.

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In city shops, children of merchants no longer talk of escaping on leaky wooden boats across tossing seas to find a better life. Instead, their parents now earn enough money - mainly by selling smuggled foreign goods - to send their kids abroad for college.

The surest sign that the Vietnamese want to put war behind them and riches ahead of them is a plan to build a giant office and hotel complex on the site of the old "Hanoi Hilton," a POW prison where Americans were held until 1973. Officials are debating, however, whether the run-down prison, which fills an entire block, might earn more as an attraction for American tourists, who have yet to come in significant numbers.

Another old landmark, the classic Metropole Hotel, once the center of French colonial life in Hanoi, has been restored to grandeur from its shabby, socialist interlude. Its restaurant, which used to serve sulfurous bottled water from Russia, now charges Paris prices for Perrier. French tourists say they love the charm of being served by former colonial subjects.

The Russians, who until 1991 were the bulk of foreigners in Hanoi, are largely gone, except in name. The Vietnamese referred to Soviet citizens as lien xo. The term is now used to shoo away street beggars, of which there are many.

Gone, too, are giant posters extolling the people to follow the advice of Ho Chi Minh and Lenin (in that order). A visitor to this colonial-era city with its old, mustard-colored villas and big overhanging trees is now confronted with billboards for Sony, Daewoo, and Philips (in that order). A big picture of Ho has been removed from the front of the state bank.

An influx of foreign investors seeking to rent the best villas has jacked up housing prices in Hanoi to near Tokyo levels. A five-bedroom house can go for $6,000 a month.

One symbolic item of a capitalist society not yet for sale in Hanoi is Jane Fonda's Workout videotape. More than two decades since her visit as an antiwar activist, Hanoians are still not wealthy enough to enjoy her ardor for aerobics.

A visitor might think that capitalism had won over communism in Vietnam. And Communist Party founder Ho, whose body is preserved for viewing in a granite mausoleum, might also wonder what his old colleagues were doing when they proposed a few months ago to set up a stock market.

But despite the buzz of new commerce in Hanoi, the party keeps its hands on much of the foreign money that is flowing into Vietnam. And even though farmers were given the right to use land as they please, the state still owns all land.

Some 12,000 state enterprises that dominate the economy have yet to be broken up, privatized, or closed. An experiment to sell shares of a few enterprises to workers failed when workers preferred to continue as wards of the state.

A socialist economy has been diluted, no doubt. Health and education, for instance, are no longer free. But capitalism has been embraced by the Communist Party only firmly enough to help restore its own legitimacy with the people and to enable an eventual "transition" back to socialism.

That's why Lenin remains an official icon in Vietnam, despite his advice to communists that they skip over the capitalist "phase" of history to socialism.

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